Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Of Mice and Matriarchs

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

bridal possession

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

On my hotel room wall in Hanoi hung a print of mediocre artistic quality, but provocative content. Stretched out on the long horizontal axis was a bridal procession — I suppose in the Vietnamese tradition, but familiar to me as Chinese tradition. Ranks of musicians and well-wishers and sedan-chair porters, bearing the bride. The figures were all bipedal mice, in human attire. On the far right of the painting sits the expectant groom, with an appropriate gleam in his eye. Unmistakably a cat. Such an apt caricature of the dynamics of traditional Chinese marriage: the bride is virtually delivered up to into servitude, sexual and otherwise, to the groom and his family. What good are girls? You feed them until about the time they might begin to prove useful, and then they get married off. A boy or two, of course, balances things out, and puts you on the receiving end. With a little luck in the horse trading, you’ll end up with a filly of even stronger back and broader beam than you were able to spawn. But this one-child nonsense upsets the equilibrium.

The picture associates in my mind with a unit in my Chinese Reader on the strong Chinese sense of family, the prime example of which was the seriousness given to the matter of a girl’s latching onto a socially acceptable (= financially promising) guy, and, please, by all means (several specified), before 30.

Now think back to LIjiang, in Yunnan, the heart of the former realm of the Naxi people. In the good old days before Han-Chinese domination, the Naxi, so all the guides and guidebooks make a point of instructing us, was a matriarchal society. The girls, confident heiresses that they were, and freed from having to focus their major effort on glomming onto a financially stable guy, spend their spring evenings gamboling on Yak Meadow, granting and terminating audiences with would-be suitors like the Queen of Hearts flicking off heads.

Just imagine a latter day Naxi orphanage filled with cute, but useless, little boy babies awaiting adoption by an enlightened Occidental couple.

Sea Dragons

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Halong BayEvening anchor in HalongFruit vendorHalong viewBoat dining

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

You probably associate the Gulf of Tonkin with the first phoney pretext for a president’s taking America into undeclared war on a foreign country. (Perhaps I’m too young to know of earlier ones. Mexico? For those even younger than I, know that honest-faced Colin Powell’s glossy Power-Point presentation to the UN assuring us of Iraq’s possession of wmd’s was not the first such pretext.) Less ephemeral than the phantom Vietnamese attack on American warships are the hundreds of limestone mountain tops jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin in Halong Bay — where the dragon descended to the sea. It’s an errily beautiful area which really has to be explored by boat to be appreciated. (If you’re not ready to hop a plane to Hanoi, at least check it out on Google-Earth, or rent “A Beautiful Country”, a Vietnamese film from 2004, for a vicarious look.)

The wimpy way to get there is to sign up for a package tour in Hanoi; do the three-day / two-night version or better. Though an Australian friend opines that maritime hitch-hiking works well.

Our boat accommodated 14 guests with dining deck, cabins below, and sun deck above. A daily swim was simply a matter of dropping anchor and jumping in. We managed a couple of terrestrial hikes, to a panoramic view from a mountain top on the largest island, Cat Ba, and to a huge cave discovered first in 1919. Another day we stopped at one of the floating villages that dot the bay — for the most part the mountains rise so steeply from the sea as to preclude land-based fishing villages — to avail ourselves of kayaks, and thus to gain access to a sandy swimming cove and a completely secluded bay entered through a small, natural tunnel in the limestone rock. Enchanting is the only word that comes to mind.

I can’t give you figures for the impact of Vietnam’s developing tourist industry on the country’s economy, but believe it to be substantial. The logistics of transportation and finding “safe” (hygienically, not physically) restaurants and lodging, for the non-Vietnamese speaker, are probably best left to the tour operators — of which there is an abundance of these in Hanoi; you’ll have more trouble avoiding them than finding them.

But why so few Americans among the throngs? Brits, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italians, even a few prissy Germans, have taken the plunge. And among the residual benefits of sloughed colonialism are excellent coffee and baguettes. I didn’t perceive so much as a whiff of anti-Americanism. To appropriate an Atlanta slogan, the Vietnamese are too busy to hate. And if, in a few moments of reflection, your conscience might pick you a bit, that’s a not so bad.

War Reparations

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Hanoi’s Lake Hoan KiemStreet vendorMotosBalcony viewTemple of Learning

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

Back at the keyboard after a three-week vacation in China’s Yunnan Province and Vietnam.

Which border to step across was open to taste: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar all abut. But, naturally, I chose Vietnam. I have a long relationship to Vietnam. I had earlier taken pains — all the pain of an academic deferment — to avoid going there, while my country was bombing it back to the stone age (as the freshman war-planners Cheney and Rumsfeld were wont to say way back then, at least before we lost the war). So my relationship is a Dagwood-sandwich of guilt, resentment, self-righteousness and moral debt. All drenched in irony: guilt for the consequences of a war I actively opposed; resentment of those who closed the gates of their consciences and flew away scott-free on that last helicopter in 1975; righteousness in thinking that choosing to spend my tourist dollar in Vietnam would cancel the debt. Guilt is as sticky as napalm.

And so, with all that baggage, I strode down the “nothing to declare” line in Hanoi airport out into to streets of the now sovereign capital.

That is poetic license. One who strides carelessly into Hanoi’s streets will most certainly be struck down by a “moto”, an apparently kamikaze swarm of greater- and lesser-powered motorcycles that ceaselessly ply the streets, dozens abreast, each serving and jockeying for advantage, tooting, and disregarding pedestrians, when they are not parked on the sidewalk blocking your path and offering their services as conveyance to you for hire. So move individuals, hugging couples, families of four, and all manner of cargo, often one-handed (one needs the other for that important mobile call) and not a helmet in sight. I couldn’t get out my camera quickly enough to snap the one carrying a coffin cross-wise the back carrier. I wonder if it was full or empty. These are the indelible terms of endearment of the streets of Hanoi.

Even someone so sensitive and sympathetic as I soon becomes calloused to the stream of micro-capitalist vendors on the streets. Fruit, water, bread, basket-ware, postcards, souvenirs, ride-offers, restaurant hawkers. shoe shiners. “No, thank you” soon gets contracted to “No”, which finally gives way to a curt, dismissive hand gesture.

Those with a command of English (not a few, though French is passe’€€€€) demand more engagement. “Do you mind if I practice my English a little with you?” (How can you dismiss that?) Lake Hoan Kiem forms a central park in old-town Hanoi, close to my hotel, and I relaxed there every evening among the natives, young and old, who also enjoyed the relative quiet. A favorite spot also for the let-me-practice-my-English gambit, which, after a few minutes’ practice culminated in “would you be interested in ….?”

One evening a woman beckoned from a park bench; she would like to speak English with me. As I approached, it was impossible to overlook a missing leg. We chatted for a bit: American?, how long had I been in Vietnam?, first time?, what had I visited? “Flower” she gave her name as. With the polite introductions over, I got right to what was on my mind, half knowing what the answer would be: could I ask how she lost her leg? 1972, she was fifteen, stepped on a land-mine. Even with the benefit of premonition, the best I could muster was “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Then followed that up with a few murmurings on the tragedy of the war. But Flower wasn’t interested in buying into my guilt trip; she had her own commodities for sale. “Would I like to buy a magazine?” she asked as she pulled a magazine out of her shopping bag. It looked to be the only one she had; something like “Healthy Living”, English, not a pristine printing. It was not a time for haggling over price. Here’s fifty thousand Dong for the magazine and the interesting conversation; but you keep the magazine, I really won’t have the time to read it. After a few rounds of please-you-must-take-it-no-I-really-don’t-need-it she relented, and stuffed the magazine and fifty-grand into her bag. Her beautiful face and deep eyes showed a hint of consternation. At losing the argument or the leg? The former, I think; her dignity proscribed her taking something for nothing.

Three dollars in war reparations. Not a record to be proud of. But, then, back home in Hangzhou, I caught NPR’s Saturday Edition to hear may-be-presidential candidate Thompson declaring that he doesn’t apologize to anyone for America’s foreign behavior.